Crisis of Communication during COVID-19: A Rapid Research

In response to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic in Bangladesh, several government and non-government organizations have been providing various types of information in various ways. To understand whether this information was effectively reaching different levels of society, we conducted a rapid anthropological study by collecting data through telephone interviews, online behaviour monitoring, and shadow monitoring methods. We found that people were confused about certain terms and phrases that were being used internationally to deal with the pandemic, like “stay at home,” “social distancing,” “quarantine,” and “lockdown.” Each of these terms meant different things to people of different socio-economic background. Most people were also  doubtful and confused about the rules of “handwashing.” Moreover, the use of masks was considered by many to be inappropriate in our culture. As a result, many people wore masks when they are alone but remove it once they met a friend, or elderly, or a customer. The graphic microscopic images of the virus shown on the television were also being misinterpreted. Media outlets were often circulating contradictory information. To effectively tackle this crisis, we recommend these news media to be more careful about the news they circulate. This study also recommends developing targeted messaging for different socioeconomic groups, based on their realities, understanding, and beliefs. 

Researchers: Dr Shahaduzzaman; Sumon Rahman; Mehnaz Rabbani

Timeline: Phase 1: April 2020; Phase 2: May 2020

Status: Completed

Contact: Mehnaz Rabbani


Report: Crisis of Communication during COVID-19: A Rapid Research

Policy brief: Trust, Institutions, and Collective Action: Rapid Study of Community Responses to COVID-19 in Bangladesh

Blog: The 30 Percent Left Out of COVID-19 Big Data Analytics


To deal with disease, fear, panic, and uncertainty during a pandemic, it is imperative to ensure that the information provided to people is accurate. Sometimes, however, how this information is delivered is even more important, since a pandemic not only creates a public health and economic crisis but also generates misinformation and severe communication crisis. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh, several government and non-government organizations have been providing various types of information in various ways through different forms of print and electronic media. To understand how this Coronavirus-related information is being received, interpreted, and enacted within the everyday life of the recipients, we conducted a rapid anthropological study.


The main objective of the study was to explore the emic experience of the pandemic. Concurrently, it also intended to:

  • Identify the sources from which people get information regarding COVID-19;
  • Examine the perception and understanding of the local people regarding Coronavirus-related information;
  • Explore their interpretation and compliance with the instructions; and
  • Examine whether the socio-economic and cultural diversity of this huge population is taken into consideration while developing the messages/information.


Given the existing lockdown situation and time sensitivity, it was nearly impossible for us to conduct direct interviews or carry on field observations. As a result, data had to be collected in other recognized alternative ways, i.e. online-based observations, content analysis, and telephone interviews with key informants. In order to ensure reliability and validity in generating data, we triangulated i) content analysis of print and visual media, ii) netnography, iii) telephone interviews, and iv) shadow observation.

For this study, we conducted 82 telephone interviews with purposively selected respondents from different classes, gender, and locality in four different clusters—rural areas, district towns, urban slums, and middle-class areas in Dhaka.

Findings and Recommendations

We found that people were confused about certain words and phrases that were being used internationally to deal with the pandemic, such as “stay at home,” “social distancing,” “quarantine,” and “lockdown.”  We found a variation of perception among different groups of people. In villages, for instance, home is not just a single house, but a collection of several houses in close proximity that are shared by multiple families. As a result, for villagers “staying at home” meant restricting their mobility and activities to the neighbourhood or para. The concept of “home” is even more complicated in slums of the city where a single corridor is a home to eight to ten different families, with shared kitchen and bathrooms. Similarly, “social distancing” generates different types of receptions among different people and is a rather unrealistic idea for slum-dwellers.

We have also found that the practice of and information specific to handwashing took a narrative of its own. Many people misinterpreted the instructions to wash hands for 20 seconds in various ways. Some said that the government had asked them to wash their hands for 20 minutes, while others said that they had been asked to wash their hands 20 times a day.

We also found that the use of masks was considered by many to be inappropriate in our culture. Consequently, people wore masks when they were alone, but whenever they face an elder,  a client, or a friend, they took off their mask as an act of civil gesture.

No one in our study had a clear idea of what to do if they contracted the Coronavirus. This is true everywhere, villages, towns, cities, or slums. Many mentioned the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) telephone numbers, but also said that they were more interested in talking to people they knew at health centres or medical facilities than talking to anyone on the telephone. Moreover, many of them failed or had trouble calling the IEDCR numbers.

We also found that the microscopic images of the virus graphically presented on the media were interpreted differently by different people. We also noticed that a large amount of information, often confusing and ambiguous, was being circulated on different news and social media, resulting in an infodemic.

Given the ability of public media to influence people, we think these they need to be careful about giving contradictory or redundant information. Moreover, information needs to be designed and disseminated in accordance with the appropriate context, i.e. geographical location and socio-economic culture. Clear instructions about what people can do if they contract Coronavirus should be widely circulated in forms, e.g. flowcharts, that people can easily understand. Otherwise, misinformation will leave people more helpless and panicked, as we already have seen in various cases.

The findings from this research were presented to the Communications Working Group of the Government, leading social communication firms, and BRAC so that they can tailor their next round of social communications more effectively.